At the prison, the Provost asks Pompey if he would be willing to help cut off a man’s head. Claudio and another prisoner named Barnadine are scheduled to be executed the next day, and if Pompey can assist the executioner his sentence will be commuted. Pompey agrees to the task. Abhorson, the executioner, arrives and is upset to hear that a disreputable bawd will be helping him with his task, but the Provost responds that the two men are equal. After a discussion of the “mystery” of being an executioner, Abhorson agrees to train Pompey, and the two prepare to hold the execution at four o’clock the following day.
Pompey’s conversion from bawd to executioner serves as a metaphor for the way that Angelo’s draconian attempts to enforce sexual morality have in fact created a shift towards more harmful sins. While Angelo may discourage fornication, he does so by making himself into a hypocritical death-dealing tyrant—he punishes one sin by promoting a greater one. In much the same way, Pompey abandons licentiousness for murderousness.
The Provost summons Claudio, whom he pities, and Barnadine, a murderer he reviles. Claudio appears, but Barnadine remains fast asleep. The Provost shows Claudio the warrant for his execution in the morning and tells the condemned man to prepare. The Duke, in disguise, enters the prison and asks if anyone has visited that evening. The Provost answers that nobody has come, not even Isabella. The Duke replies that a message to pardon Claudio may yet arrive.
At this point in the play, the audience’s suspense is at a peak. Will Angelo stay true to his word and pardon Claudio? Moreover, for perhaps the only time in the entire work, the Duke himself is not in control of what is going on—like the audience, he is unsure whether his plan to manipulate Angelo has succeeded.
A messenger appears at the jail carrying word from Angelo. Instead of a pardon, he carries the command that Claudio’s execution should proceed as planned, as should Barnadine’s; Claudio’s head should be sent to Angelo by five o’clock. The Provost promises to fulfill this charge, and the Duke privately laments Angelo’s duplicity. The Duke then asks who Barnadine is, and the Provost tells him he is a Bohemian prisoner who has been in jail for nine years. Barnadine is reckless and unrepentant, and he spends most of the day drunk. He is so slothful that he has even refused to rise when summoned for execution.
Angelo proves himself an even more despicable villain than he seemed before. His hypocrisy has been compounded by this deception. However, it is worth comparing Angelo’s conduct with the Duke’s: is there a firm distinction that makes Angelo’s duplicity unethical, while the Duke’s deceptions remain acceptable? Finally, also, keep in mind that Barnadine’s extraordinarily poor behavior (besides just being funny) serves to emphasize that Claudio, by contrast, is a far more upright and undeserving prisoner.
The Duke tells the Provost that he looks like an honorable man, and asks him to do the favor of delaying Claudio’s death. The Provost asks how he could do so while still delivering Claudio’s head to Angelo. The Duke suggests executing Barnadine instead, but the Provost responds that Angelo would recognize the substitution. The Duke tells the Provost to cut Barnadine’s hair and shave his beard to render his head unrecognizable. When the Provost protests that this deceit would be against his duties, the Duke shows his signet ring and promises that the Provost’s cooperation would be appreciated by the absent Duke.
The Provost’s devotion to his civic duties, ironically, makes it harder for the Duke to convince the Provost to do his bidding.